Rural areas struggle when it comes to fast internet as schools head back online

Students in rural areas concerned about internet access for back to school

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - School is back in session, but for many that means virtually. In more rural areas of the state, the internet connection is making back-to-school even tougher.

Eighth grader, Seth Bowling doesn’t need an internet connection to make music, but when he and his sister start fully-online school next week, they will. The only problem? The family said they do not have access to high-speed internet, but rather about 10 mega-bits per second downloading speed.

A family of four with both parents working from home, Andrea Castanon, who is trying to find an internet solution for her kids, said the internet connection is just too slow.

“It’s exacerbated, definitely now, especially due to the pandemic,” she said. “When we’re forced to work from home and make do with what we have.”

They live in a new development just outside Sierra Vista city limits. Cox Communications does not have high-speed internet infrastructure built out there. Their current service is a line of sight service, and Castanon said there isn’t much else available that is faster or comparable to the near $80 a month she’s spending on internet. She even sent a letter, pleading for Cox to build service.

“It’s a disadvantage, especially in today’s day in age,” she said.

Cox Communications said in an email to KOLD they will reach out to Castanon to see if they can provide their area with service.

“We are proud to have connected hundreds of students on government assistance, with internet during this challenging time. The more than 300 Cox Southern Arizona employees have been focused on ensuring our customers stay connected and have the speeds they need to work and learn from home,” said Lisa Lovallo, Southern Arizona market leader and senior vice president of Cox Communications. “We do not want our customers to worry about losing essential services during this time of need.”

Castanon’s family is not alone with this problem. According to the FCC, as of 2019, about two-tenths of households in the Cochise County area had fixed download speeds of at least 10 mega-bits per second.

Cox Communications is providing hot spots and giving two months of free internet access to qualifying families and easy access to refurbished computers, but Castanon’s family doesn’t financially qualify. The Cochise County superintendent’s office said districts are working with providers to help families with services.

“Our educational leaders are hard at work being creative and finding solutions to assist our families,” said Jacqui Clay, Cochise County School Superintendent, in a written statement.

The County is asking businesses to extend their wifi services for students and has hot spots from Verizon around the county. Long term, Clay said they are working with the state regarding the ERATE/K12 broadband initiative via a technology consortium to bring services to the county.

But, in the eastern part of Cochise County near New Mexico, Bowie Unified school district has found an in-person, online solution. They said many of their kids do not have access to internet or support at home, and 20 percent of the students have special needs. Monday was their first day back. Students socially distanced with required masks are learning online—just at the school. Every middle and high school student has a computer to use, while the younger kids rotate in the computer lab.

While there are public places to access wifi and internet, Castanon said her family is trying to reduce their exposure to COVID-19, as her son has asthma.

“My back-up plan is we’re going to have to make it work,” she said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 86 percent of households have internet access in Arizona.

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